Category Archives: US Politics

Racism and the US Civil Rights movement retold


Civil Rights marchersAs I read through Rick Perlstein’s book, Nixonland, about American politics and life in the 1950s and 60s, the Civil Rights movement and the reaction to it by white Americans, the narrative astounds me. Such anger, such violence. Such sadness. It seems like such an alien place, dystopian, almost fictional, like an Orwellian novel.

I was, it seems from my reading, not really aware, not fully cognizant of just how bad it was. But then, it looks eerily familiar – some of the photos look just like those taken during the Occupy Wall Street protests. Am I merely juxtaposing my own feelings on it, conflating the two? After all, I was there. Wasn’t I?

Growing up in Canada, I never experienced the clashes that rocked America, especially in the Fifties and Sixties.* I saw the marches, the riots on the TV news, but never really felt their impact at home. Nor understood what they meant. Racism was such a bizarre, foreign concept that it didn’t make any sense.

I watched with youthful fascination at the stark black and white images of the protesters being set upon by police dogs, beaten by police batons, hosed with water cannon as they marched – mostly peacefully – for the right to sit in the front of a bus, use a washroom, to vote or have their children attend a school. Black and white, white vs black.

It simply didn’t make sense. Were people being beaten, even killed by those appointed or elected to protect them? People had to fight, often against violent reaction for the simple right to vote in a democracy? Why were others using brutality, violence and fear to prevent them? There was no logic, no sanity to any of it.

Not simply because I was young, but also because, as far as I was aware then, racism didn’t exist in our WASP neighbourhood, so there was nothing to compare it with. It certainly wasn’t in our household, in the little bungalow built in one of Toronto’s earliest east-end, post-war suburbs. Race – as a topic of animosity – didn’t exist: not because there were no people of colour, different ethnicities, religions or backgrounds, but rather because those differences simply didn’t matter.

To kids, anyway.** Continue reading

Why are Pickup Trucks so Anti-Pedestrian?


Pickup truck exhaustTake a look at the back of any of today’s pickup trucks. Notice the exhaust pipe, under the vehicle? It points to the right. The same side of the road that pedestrians and cyclists use.*

Notice the bike lane in the photo – that’s where cyclists will be when this truck passes by them. No place to move to avoid the fumes.

1951 truckYet I have seen vintage trucks with that design, as in the photo to the right (even here in town). Several, in fact in just the past week. I don’t know the date of the change from rear to side exhaust, but it seems to be at least two decades old. I also know there are aftermarket kits that will return your exhaust to the rear on pickup trucks.

By design, modern pickup trucks are meant to spew their exhaust directly at pedestrians and cyclists they pass, unlike most cars, vans and even SUVs which exhaust to the rear. And a very few that exhaust to the left.

Diesel exhaustIt’s got to be a deliberate, anti-social design by manufacturers. Designers surely think of these things. They’re not stupid, even if they are misanthropic towards pedestrians and anyone on a bicycle. They planned it. They know where people walk or cycle.

Why, one has to ask, are governments permitting what is clearly a hazard – even a threat – to pedestrians in truck design to continue? Continue reading

Creationism’s stench still lingers in American education


CreationismCreationism (and it’s dressed-up-in-drag younger brother, “intelligent” design) is the black mold of education. It’s an insidious infection of the mind, an intellectual parasite. And like real-life black mold, it creates a toxic environment – for learning and critical thinking.

This week, creationism again came up in American school board discussions. According to the HuffPost, the American Taliban* – the Tea Party – is behind the debate at a Springboro, Ohio, school board, to add the pseudoscience of creationist claptrap to the curriculum. The school board president, Kelly Kohls, is also head of the local Tea Party.

Hardly any surprises there.

It’s a sad, creepy tale. Creationism just won’t get cured. At least not by having such myopic fundamentalists in positions of authority. How do people with closed minds get on school boards in the first place?

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Religion, Logic, and Tornadoes


Facebook image
What has a tornado in common with prayer in schools and US President Barack Obama? Rhonda Crosswhite. Yes, the Oklahoma teacher praised as a hero for saving several children when a massive tornado ripped through her town of Moore, earlier this week.

And no doubt she was. But there were many other teachers who were heroes that day,  none of whom have become a rallying point for the religious right, as far as I can tell. Crosswhite was, from all accounts I’ve read, the only one to mention praying during the tornado. That comment made her a different sort of hero to the religious right. The rest have generally been ignored.

Crosswhite told media that she prayed while the tornado carved its path of destruction around her.

“I did the teacher thing that we’re probably not supposed to do. I prayed — and I prayed out loud,” she said in an interview with NBC News following the violent storm.

No surprises. Even for nonbelievers, the no-atheists-in-foxholes theory rings true when confronted by big, scary, life-threatening events like tornadoes or wars. When you’re having the bejeezus scared out of you, your mind is not likely parsing the intellectual debate about whether a particular deity exists. And believers of any faith are naturally going to delve into their faith for support in times of crisis. Nothing unusual or conspiratorial about that.

Even her comment that she prayed “out loud” is unexceptional. I suspect I would be very loud in the same circumstance, albeit more expletive-laden than religious.

Of course, it may simply be a biological reaction rather than rational. It might be because of “vesicular monoamine transporter 2” or VMAT2, a protein involved in neurotransmitter functions that geneticist Dean Hamer associated with human spirituality in his delightfully irreverent and thought-provoking book, The God Gene.

Almost immediately, a photo of Crosswhite appeared on the Web with almost her words:

“And then I did something teachers aren’t supposed to do.
I Prayed.
I prayed out loud.”

Not an exact quote (so little on Facebook is…) and subtly different. This was quickly spun by the religious right into a rallying cry to reinstate prayer in America public schools. To be fair, I have no idea if Crosswhite agrees with any of these demands, or likes having her words used for such a purpose. But I have read of no protests by her, either.

Yes, yes, you are wondering as I did what the connection is. But you are using logic and reason to try and understand an issue of blind faith (and right-wing American politics).

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The Missing Lines


Mesopotamian tabletThe National Museum of Iraq – known originally as the Baghdad Archaeological Museum – once housed some of the oldest works of literature in the world. Treasures from the origins of civilization, from the cities of Sumeria, Babylon, Assyria were on display*.

In 2003, when the Americans invaded**, a battle was fought between US and Iraqi forces at the museum. The Iraqi troops fled, and looters came in. According to Wikipedia:

According to museum officials the looters concentrated on the heart of the exhibition: “the Warka Vase, a Sumerian alabaster piece more than 5,000 years old; a bronze Uruk statue from the Akkadian period, also 5,000 years old, which weighs 660 pounds; and the headless statue of Entemena. The Harp of Ur was torn apart by looters who removed its gold inlay.”[4] Among the stolen artifacts is the Bassetki Statue made out of bronze, a life-size statue of a young man, originally found in the village Basitke in the northern part of Iraq, an Acadian piece that goes back to 2300 B.C. and the stone statue of King Schalmanezer, from the eighth century B.C.
In addition, the museum’s aboveground storage rooms were looted; the exterior steel doors showed no signs of forced entry. Approximately 3,100 excavation site pieces (jars, vessels, pottery shards, etc.) were stolen, of which over 3,000 have been recovered. The thefts did not appear to be discriminating; for example, an entire shelf of fakes was stolen, while an adjacent shelf of much greater value was undisturbed.
The third occurrence of theft was in the underground storage rooms, where evidence pointed to an inside job. The thieves attempted to steal the most easily transportable objects, which had been intentionally stored in the most remote location possible. Of the four rooms, the only portion disturbed was a single corner in the furthest room, where cabinets contained 100 small boxes containing cylinder seals, beads, and jewelry. Evidence indicated that the thieves possessed keys to the cabinets but dropped them in the dark. Instead, they stole 10,000 small objects that were lying in plastic boxes on the floor. Of them, nearly 2,500 have been recovered.
One of the most valuable artifacts looted was a headless stone statue of the Sumerian king Entemena of Lagash. The Entemena statue, “estimated to be 4,400 years old, is the first significant artifact returned from the United States and by far the most important piece found outside Iraq. American officials declined to discuss how they recovered the statue.” The statue of the king, located in the center of the museum’s second-floor Sumerian Hall, weighs hundreds of pounds, making it the heaviest piece stolen from the museum – the looters “probably rolled or slid it down marble stairs to remove it, smashing the steps and damaging other artifacts.” It was recovered in the United States with the help of Hicham Aboutaam, an art dealer in New York.

The looting was severe enough to spawn several books and magazine articles (also here and here). The museum is still rebuilding and not open to the public, a decade later.

One of the side effects of the war was to end international archeological research into the region. And while we wait to see if the country ever settles so it becomes safe enough to resume such activities, looters continue to steal everything they can, including from archeological sites.

The Museum reported that many of its cuneiform tablets were looted, although some were later recovered. Those tablets contain some of the oldest writing in the world, among them the epic of Gilgamesh (the tablet shown in the image above, is the 11th tablet in the epic, from the library of Ashurbanipal (Assyrian King 669-631 BCE), now in the British Museum).

Continue reading

The Hobgoblins under the Lobbyist Bridge


Lobbyist cartoonLobbyist. For some, the word conjures frightening images of nefarious trolls and ogres in Armani suits lurking under the bridges and in the woods in the dark night, snatching unwary politicians and dragging them down to whatever hell the gullible and naive descend to (a hell cleverly paved with gold and champagne flutes).

The very word itself is printed in bold and in colour in some comments, just in case you might miss it and the boogeyman-thrill the hiss of the word gives. Lobbyisssst… my precioussss….

That’s in part because the popular impression of lobbying derives from watching American TV news, and sitcoms. In the USA, the lobbying industry has been likened to a shadow government, pulling the strings of the legislators while filling their pockets with cash. Lobbyists there seem to be able to buy votes with impunity and openly. It’s not the same everywhere, however.

For others, the word simply refers to someone doing a job, like a carpenter, a lawyer, a dentist… in fact a lawyer could be called a lobbyist with a law degree (we’ve seen lawyers acting as lobbyists on behalf of their clients in front of council many times). And like any other profession, lobbyists have a role to play in public life and government.

Lobbyist cartoonWhile lobbyists often get a bad rap in the media because of their association with corporate interests, they also represent many smaller commercial concerns and NGOs. Some represent non-profit groups, charities, environmental agencies, health agencies and even private schools. Lobbyists helped change the smoking laws in Ontario to prevent smoking in public places, bars and restaurants. Lobbyists helped change the pesticide use laws to prohibit toxic chemicals from being used on public property. So clearly they’re not all bad, and in fact are often important to the governance process.

Lobbyists play an important role in bringing issues and challenges to the political forefront. How much they actually influence municipal governments is difficult to assess.

“The defence of lobbying is that it is not only an inevitable part of life but a necessary and positive one. It is simply a modern professional embodiment of the ancient right of people to petition their rulers, and, by extension, to seek the advice and support of others to help them do so. Modern governments are responsible for a vast range of policy areas which involves drafting and implementing detailed and intricate laws and regulations. On their own they cannot hope to keep abreast of all the information and opinions they need to take into account. Lobbying is a means of providing them with the raw material they need to make informed decisions which reflect different interests in their societies.”
Trevor Morris & Simon Goldsworthy: PR Today, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012

Because of the negative connotations associated with the term, lobbyists often prefer to call themselves “public affairs” practitioners.

“There is some confusion over the terms ‘lobbying’ and ‘public affairs’. Some authorities argue that there are subtle differences between the two, suggesting the lobbying is process of speaking with political actors, whilst public affairs refers to the complete process. The term lobbyist is often eschewed by consultants because of its shady undertones. However, in this fact sheet (and all others) the terms will be used interchangeably.”
www.publicaffairslinks.co.uk/

Others try to highlight their difference with the term “advocates” rather than lobbyist. A rose by any other name… Others have called lobbying “advocacy journalism“. The American League of Lobbyists has in its code of ethics this statement:

Lobbying is an integral part of our nation’s democratic process and is a constitutionally guaranteed right. Government officials are continuously making public policy decisions that affect the vital interests of individuals, corporations, labor organizations, religious groups, charitable institutions and other entities. Public officials need to receive factual information from affected interests and to know such parties’ views in order to make informed policy judgments. In exercising their rights to try to influence public policy, interests often choose to employ professional representatives to monitor developments and advocate their positions, or to use lobbyists through their membership in trade associations and other membership organizations. Tens of thousands of men and women now are professional lobbyists and represent virtually every type of interest.

Why do companies or groups use lobbyists? Because not everyone is calm and confident as a speaker, is comfortable doing public presentations, has the time to research and meet with everyone. When you can’t do the job yourself, you hire a carpenter to fix the stairs, a mechanic to fix your car, an electrician to put in new lighting. Same principle.

The unfathomable paranoia over lobbyists is likely more driven by petty partisan politics than by any actual threat they pose to democracy. The word is used to scare small children, but like all ghost stories, it proves a risible threat in the sockdolager of rational thought.

Five years ago, Collingwood council considered creating a lobbyist registry. Staff report 2008-05 (April 7, 2008) noted

Some of the options may be viewed as solutions to problems that Collingwood, as a much smaller municipality, does not encounter.

In other words, some members of council were looking to fix what wasn’t broken. I wrote a humorous piece about that discussion, a few days later on my old blog.

The issue brewed and stewed like a fart in a crowded elevator on a long trip to the penthouse, until June 23, 2008, when Coun. Edwards moved and I seconded a motion to dump the idea. It passed (5-4? I don’t recall – the EB story isn’t online). I also wrote about that, more seriously, on my old blog. Back then I wrote:

It was one of those ‘bubble ideas’ – ideas that sound good at election time and make great sound bites, but are fragile shells, ill-conceived plans, hollow of substance.

The idea seemed to have been buried in the post-election kitty litter with the rest of the impractical proposals, but up it came last April in a staff report (C2008-05). But that initial discussion had no conclusion (or rather debate was truncated before we arrived at one), and left to simmer for a few months.

I thought the issue had died its deserving death, but no, it continues to rise from the grave every now and then like one of those tired old internet hoaxes about Bill Gates giving you $100 to forward this email to everyone in your contact list. Someone always seems to be able to spin a conspiracy in which a lobbyist plays the role of the Big Bad Wolf. We need a website that debunks these political myths like Snopes.com does internet myths.

This is a small town. We can figure this out without the need for any more layers of bureaucracy or red tape.

We don’t need a lobbyist registry anymore than we need a spaceport, an aquarium or a bronze statue of a former mayor in front of the library. Like I wrote in 2008, this would put a wall between politicians and the people they represent, and flies in the face of the often-promised-but-seldom-delivered “open, accountable and transparent” government.

Musings on representational democracy


Representational democracy, says Wikipedia, is

“…founded on the principle of elected people representing a group of people, as opposed to direct democracy. All modern Western style democracies are various types of representative democracies…”

And so is Canada, and by extension so is the Town of Collingwood; small cog it may be in the great machinery of democratic government. We elect people to represent us, to make decisions for us, to debate the issues for us.

Some people mistake the point of this system. They believe we elect people to do what they’re told, to act as their delegates and represent solely their own interests rather than those of the whole electorate. We’ve seen that reaction locally.

Edmund Burke, that great critic of unrestrained democracy, was adamant that the duty of a representative was not simply to act as a rubber stamp for the wishes of the electorate, turning every demand or grumble into legislation or votes. Burke said, in a speech in 1774, that representatives owed the electorate the duty of both their conscience and their judgment – even if their views ran counter to those of the majority:

“…it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
Edmund Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France

Burke believed representatives should be a trustee, not merely a delegate. He never advocated acting without consideration for the electorate, but he believed at the end of the day, you were elected to make decisions, and for everyone’s best interests.

While good in theory, Burke was also skeptical about how it worked in practice because democracy is fraught with challenges. As Wikipedia notes, he believed,

“…government required a degree of intelligence and breadth of knowledge of the sort that was very uncommon among the common people. Second he thought that common people had dangerous and angry passions that could be easily aroused by demagogues if they had the vote; he feared the authoritarian impulses that could be empowered by these passions would undermine cherished traditions and established religion, leading to violence and confiscation of property. Thirdly, Burke warned that democracy would tyrannize unpopular minorities who needed the protection of the upper classes.”

Things have not changed as much since Burke’s day as we might imagine. In fact, we need even more knowledge today than ever before to govern effectively. Thanks to the advent of social media, everyone is empowered to rise to the level of demagogue, and passionate – often authoritarian and intemperate – impulses rule internet forums, blogs and social media. We see some people using those tools to “tyrannize” and bully others by the sheer volume and anger of their attack.

Perhaps the difference is that today you can more easily tyrannize the majority with these methods, not simply the “unpopular minorities” Burke wrote about.

Some people … believe we elect people to do what they’re told, to act as their delegates and represent solely their own interests rather than those of the whole electorate. We’ve seen that reaction locally.

Representational democracy exists because the “direct” democracy of the Greek city states is impractical today. You simply cannot convene a meeting where every citizen has a say and a vote for every issue and you can’t have a referendum for every vote. If we did, we would still be debating the palette of colours for the heritage district, or the size of A-frame signs, and nothing would ever get done.

One hundred percent participation may be democracy by strict definition, but it would veer uncomfortably close to anarchy and mob rule. The loudest voices would top the rest. That’s why we choose representatives to manage our interests: it avoids the decline into mob rule. And that means the representatives have the responsibility of listening to all voices, not just the loudest.

To prevent representational democracy from becoming a dictatorship of the elected, various laws are in place to act as checks and balances on the process and on how power is wielded. This works relatively well here in Canada, especially in our non-party municipal politics; it works rather poorly in the USA where lobbyists easily buy votes and favourable legislation. No system is perfect.

~~~~~

* The Concept of Representation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

Is Tar Baby the new N-Word?


Wikipedia imageAs far back as I can recall, the term “tar baby” was a metaphor in common political parlance for a “sticky situation.” It has no racial meaning in that context, any more than saying “honey trap” or “sticky wicket.” Both have similar, but not synonymous meanings. But in the last decade, “tar-baby” has become the new N-word on the political stage.*

The tar-baby theme is common in mythology from many cultures (referenced, for example, in Joseph’s Campbell’s groundbreaking work, Hero With a Thousand Faces). It represents an apparently attractive situation that traps the beholder and, once you embrace it, the harder you struggle to break free, the more you become stuck in it. I’ve used the term in such a context in several blog posts. But recently, when I was accused on Facebook of using “racist” terms by mentioning a tar-baby situation, I was taken aback, and felt I had to disagree. And do some research.

In 2009, the use of this term in the House of Commons created a mini-cyclone of comment about allegedly racist terminology used in the House. As the blog Unambiguously Ambidextrous, notes:

A controversy erupted in the House of Commons today after Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, the parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, used the term “tar baby” in response to Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff’s decision to back away from Stephane Dion’s unpopular carbon tax policy. I have to plead ignorance on the etymology of the noun, as I have always been more familiar with the pejorative.

“On that side of the House, they have the man who fathered the carbon tax, put it up for adoption to his predecessor and now wants a paternity test to prove the tar baby was never his in the first place,” said Poilievre.

This was followed by MP Ralph Goodale’s objections to the term and asked Mr. Poilievre to apologize for the usage:

“In addition to being a pejorative term, which might well prove to be unparliamentary, the parliamentary secretary might consider that there are many authorities both in this country and many others that consider the term racist,” said Goodale.

Stephen Taylor provided a list of references to similar non-parliamentary uses of the term in his blog, none of which seem to have have generated the same storm of controversy. Clara Rising, writing in 2002 about collective religious consciousness, called original sin, “a cultural Tar Baby implacable and immutable, as infinite and as unavoidable as eternity.”

Back in 2006, then-governor Mitt Romney was taken to task for using the term “tar-baby” in a reference to a piece of problematic infrastructure. As a Time Magazine writer commented about the subsequent uproar:

So, is use of the term today a case of insensitivity? Or is the controversy caused by political correctness gone amok?

The latter, I suggest. True, I might not be as sensitive to it as Americans. I don’t live in the same political-racial-social milieu as most Americans; while racism exists in Canada, it is not nearly as overt in our multicultural nation.

In the USA, “tar-baby” has been used as a pejorative (and sometimes as a term of affection). Racial politics are so highly charged among our southern neighbours that it is a treacherous undercurrent in American political dialogue. As the Colorado Springs Gazette noted in this editorial:

Racism in the political sphere today has become so insulting that it makes “tar-baby” seem benign.

Even if mild, a white person calling someone of African-American heritage a “tar-baby” is considered a racist slur, and I can appreciate the sensitivity of the use. But surely there’s a difference between labelling a person, race or group with a term and labelling an issue or situation.

Just as an example, calling a woman a “honey trap” is very different from labelling a common tactic in espionage a honey trap. If I call a woman a bitch, it is very different from calling a tricky shot in golf one. Clearly context matters.

Would there be an issue if we used the metaphor of the “tar-wolf” (from James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee)? Would anyone be accused of slinging racist slurs against aboriginal First Nations people by talking about a “tar-wolf” situation? The two stories are almost identical, aside from the difference between the character molded from the tar. Both the Cherokee and African-Americans shared at least one disreputable part of US history:

If these two stories sound remarkably similar, it is no coincidence.  Before the Cherokee were relocated to Oklahoma in 1838, many were plantation owners and owned slaves.

In the heated cauldron of American politics, or in the adversarial arena of the House of Commons, people are constantly looking for ways to attack opponents for any reason, regardless of the validity or strength of the attack. Unfortunately, this also creates a situation of apparent wrongdoing by making it a focus of media attention. The perception of  racism can create the reality in the public mind that it is there, regardless any logical argument that it is imaginary. Words themselves, no matter how innocently used, become their own tar-babies.

The Denver Post commented on this flap in the US:

The notion that referencing African folklore reveals inherent racism against those of African descent is bizarre.

True, the tar baby has been fundamentally misunderstood by various illiterate racists. In their ignorance of the folklore, such bigots think the term applies specifically to a black person. For example, the late comedic genius Bernie Mac wrote of being called a “tar baby” as a child. But surely we ought not let ignorant racists push us to obliterate cultural knowledge of important African folklore.

This raises the question: where does the reference come from? The Denver Post points out a bit of the history:

“Tar baby” comes from African folklore. Congressman Doug Lamborn used the term to refer to the debt-ceiling negotiations, not the president. And the nationwide smear campaign against Lamborn follows the left’s typical path of character assassination and guilt by association.
In his book, “Hero with a Thousand Faces,” Joseph Campbell writes of the “celebrated and well-nigh universal tar-baby story of popular folklore.” Campbell refers to scholar Aurelio Espinosa, who in the 1930s and ’40s gathered hundreds of examples of “the tar-baby story” from around the world, varying in detail but all about getting stuck in something.
In America, we know the story best from Joel Chandler Harris’ “Uncle Remus” stories of the 1800s. But Harris did not create these stories. Instead, he took (some say stole) them from slaves, who brought the stories with them from Africa and adapted them orally.

What’s ironic is that Chandler’s stories were not seen as racist until more than a century later. They were originally treated as they were meant: records of African-American folklore.** As Wikipedia notes:

The animal stories were conveyed in such a manner that they were not seen as racist by many among the audiences of the time. By the mid-20th century, however, the dialect and the “old Uncle” stereotype of the narrator, was considered politically incorrect and demeaning by many African-American people, on account of what they considered to be racist and patronizing attitudes toward African-Americans. Providing additional controversy is the story’s context in the Antebellum south on a slave owning plantation, a setting that is portrayed in a passive and even docile manner. Nevertheless, Harris’ work was, according to himself, an accurate account of the stories he heard from the slaves when he worked on a plantation as a young man. … Many of the stories that he recorded have direct equivalents in the African oral tradition, and it is thanks to Harris that their African-American form is preserved.

Wikipedia has a lengthier list of antecedents, including Cherokee and African folk tales, and mentions one researcher who identified 267 variants on the tale in world mythology.

The New Republic took up the debate, noting in 2011 when the term again raised its politically-charged head:

…the word around the blogosphere, most articulately phrased by David Sirota at Salon, is that Lamborn was using coded language: “[T]he comment reveals how various forms of racism are still being mainstreamed by the fringe right,” as Sirota has it. But before making that judgment, we must ascertain: Is tar baby actually a racial slur?

Certainly not the way the guys before Lamborn were using it. A notion that they were passing a quiet signal to racists is awkward, given the decidedly non-black topics they were discussing. Need we entertain the possibility that Romney was telegraphing a subtle signal to bigots in a discussion of a highway project? Was John McCain preaching a coded message to a racist base in a comment about divorce procedure?

In those instances, a simpler analysis works. Language is all about metaphor, and it is useful to have one to refer to objects or topics that ensnare one upon contact. It’s why the Bre’r Rabbit story the expression traces to has had such legs—as well as why cultures worldwide, including African ones, have equivalent folklore characters. Thus a reasonable analysis is that people reach for this useful metaphor, within the rapid and subconscious activity that speaking entails, unaware that some consider it to have a second meaning as a slur.

As little as I respect the Republicans or Harper’s Conservatives, I doubt they would be deliberately and provocatively racist, and, like my use, meant the word as a powerful metaphor that still resounds in popular culture. John McWhorter, at the New Republic, added:

I submit, however, that to a large extent, those who feel that tar baby’s status as a slur is patently obvious are judging from the fact that it sounds like a racial slur, because tar is black and baby sounds dismissive. And here’s the crucial point: that, in itself, is a reality that cannot be denied.

Part of the human propensity for metaphor is that we make semantic associations, which drift and reassign over time. As such, it’s not the most graceful thing to refer to a black figure as a tar baby, and it was quite gracious for Lamborn to apologize. However, to assume Lamborn knew the word was a slur and was passing a grimy little signal to his base is unwarranted here. It is the kind of reflexive and recreational abuse we revile when it comes from the other direction (i.e. Obama as a “racist”).

Tar baby is one of those intermediate cases: The basic meaning is the folkloric one, while a derived meaning, known only to a segment of American English speakers (and to many among them, only vaguely) is a dismissive reference to black people.

There will be gaffes with expressions like these, upon which, in a sociologically enlightened society, apologies will be necessary. However, to insist upon the moral backwardness of the apologist is logically incoherent in reference to this particular term, and as such, less sociologically enlightened than it may seem.

Sounds like a racist slur? Should we not judge a thing by more depth than a bad first impression? There’s a conversation in Woody Allen’s movie, Annie Hall, in which Alvy Singer (played by Allen) is complaining about what he (mis)hears as an anti-Semitic remark by a TV executive:

“You know, I was having lunch with some guys from NBC, so I said, ‘Did you eat yet or what?’ And Tom Christie said, ‘No, JEW?’ Not ‘Did you?’…JEW eat? JEW? You get it? JEW eat?”

Which the audience recognizes as both comically over-sensitive on Alvy’s part, but also as a wry comment on how things get misconstrued so easily. Such is the situation with “tar-baby” today. Except not all of the audience seems to get the joke.

The Denver Post editorial concluded:

The irony is that “tar baby” has become its own tar baby, and we’re all getting stuck in it. Several media outlets reviewed my detailed blog posts on the matter, and all involved stole time away from addressing the nation’s pressing problems.

Yet there’s a reason the tar baby folktale has spread through so many cultures. It teaches us something important and universal about human nature. And that’s precisely why we ought not sacrifice the African tar baby story on the altar of political correctness.

I agree with that last line. Metaphors are powerful and memorable because they speak to something larger than just the words. Most come from storytelling and in a few words they encapsulate the entire tale – the characters, the events, the moral. The Colorado Springs Gazette suggests what I don’t believe is a reasonable solution:

Let us all stop saying “tar-baby,” for sure. For using this phrase, Lamborn will pay. He is mired in a controversy that will get worse as he fights against it. But let’s keep perspective. Relative to the racial hatred and insensitivity that permeates political rhetoric of the past and present, this should be far from a major-league scandal.

What next? Will we stop saying “slow but steady wins the race” because it comes from one of Aesop’s fables, and it might be seen as a slur against Greeks? Stop using “the boy who cried wolf” because it might be derogatory towards shepherds? Stop using the “good Samaritan” parable because it might be seen as a pejorative against Palestinians (today’s Samaritan ancestors)? Where will this nonsense end? Will we abandon all of our powerful language and chuck metaphors out the window out of fear someone won’t understand what we’re saying?

Better instead to get our head out of the politically correct sand learn to recognize the context of a metaphor. Stop treating it like a convenient one-size-fits-all racist slur that fits your preconceived political notions, and start thinking critically instead.

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* Yes, I know “tar baby” is really two words, but calling it the new N-phrase has no cachet. N-word has a life of its own, larger than mere counting or vocabulary.

** Uncle Remus stories were still popular when I was growing up in the 1950s, and I saw Disney’s 1946 cartoon version (Song of the South) on TV that decade. Even as a child I was able to see the racial stereotypes and exaggerations. Uncle Remus tales were still available in school libraries, too, sometimes alone, other times in compilations of folktales.

Read the tale here. I wonder why the briar patch metaphor from the second half of the tale does not evoke similar revulsion among the politically correct guardians.